Monday, August 20, 2007

Janus Words & Contronyms

It is with great hesitation that I write a post on language, for although I enjoy the occasional lay-audience book on language, I know almost nothing about linguistics or the formal study of language.

That said, I can't stop thinking about the word sanction.

In one context, sanction can mean to punish for disobedience: "Prior to the current war, the United States sanctioned Iraq." Conversely, sanction can mean approve and support: "The United States sanctions the actions of the current Iraqi regime." At least to this reader, these meanings appear to be almost polar opposites.

I'm not the only one who has noted this strange phenomenon. There are nearly a dozen terms for a word that has two opposite or contradictory meanings. My favorites are Janus words – Janus being the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings – and contronyms (though, in full disclosure, the latter term is championed by a judge on the Second Circuit, a court to which I have a particular attachment).

An in-depth description of the history and sociopsychological causes of the contronym phenomenon is beyond my abilities (although others have gone down this path) and the ambit of this blog; however, I can provide you with a few of my favorite contronyms (in no particular order):

  • sanction
    (see above)

  • (to) go off
    His cooking filled the kitchen with so much smoke, the fire alarm went off.
    After its batteries ran out, the fire alarm went off.

  • quantum
    All of her research was conducted at the impossibly small quantum scale.
    Newton's immense contribution to the body of knowledge represented a quantum leap forward.

  • custom
    Certain elements of their behavior were predictable, as the group was merely following custom.
    His pants were so unique, they must have been custom-made.

  • moot
    They were all able to understand the problem better after they'd mooted it amongst themselves.
    The point was moot and didn't even merit discussion.

  • scan
    He didn't get the article's deeper meaning, as he had only scanned it.
    She had a detailed view of the image, as she had used a machine to scan it.
(For a longer list of contronyms, see here and here.)

1 comment:

Andy said...

Here's a not-quite-a-Janus word that I haven't seen on any of the online lists but that I think bears inclusion:

Recognizing that the toy was more suitable for a child, he took the appropriate action and let the kid have it.
He appropriated the toy, even though it was more suitable for the child.